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REVIEW: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
(Sourcebooks Fire, ISBN 9781402292187, August 5 2014)

Rating: 4.4 out of 5

Description (from Amazon): You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with the curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.

A dead girl walks the streets.

She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago.

And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan.

Because the boy has a terrifying secret – one that would just kill to get out.

Review: To begin with, I’ll say that this is young adult lit, being pitched as The Ring meets Dexter, all wrapped up in Japanese folklore. Intrigued? Sure you are, because who wouldn’t be? The great news is that there’s a lot to love about The Girl from the Well, beginning with the fact that it’s genuinely disturbing. I’m a big fan of horror, whether it’s marketed to the adult or young adult market. Yeah, I know a lot of people who read horror want to be scared, but scary is easier to pull off than disturbing–so props to Rin Chupeco for pulling it off.

Part of what makes this novel so successful in that area is the choice of narrator. The Girl from the Well is told in an eerie, faintly disjointed first person, present tense–from the point of view of the eponymous girl from the well. And she’s a three hundred year old Japanese vengeful spirit. At times she refers to herself in the third person, as if she is outside herself, looking in, studying herself. The writing is fluid and well-crafted, and the narrative is spare and cold and distant, almost disinterested: exactly as one would imagine a bored ghost would be. That is, until the number nine comes up in some way, or until the spirit comes across a child murderer. Then? All bets are off. And rather than making the book hard to read–as can sometimes happen when the narrator is somewhat aloof–it lends a great tension to the book, particularly in the scenes that get bloody.

And there’s a lot of blood.

A lot of the YA horror I’ve read recently tends to dial things back on the gore front, perhaps thinking that teens can’t handle it. And, along with that, there’s this need to temper the held-back horror with a sweet romance and happily ever after ending . . . sort of the a spoon full of sugar approach. I’m happy to report that not only does The Girl from the Well unflinchingly look into the abyss, it does not contain a romance. It is, however, a love story of sorts. Just not in the way you might be expecting.

The language is lovely and haunting. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the novel:

I am where dead children go.

With other kinds of dead it is different. Often their souls drift quietly away, like a leaf caught in the throes of a hidden whirlpool; slipping down without sound, away from sight. They roll and ebb gently with the tides until they sink beneath the waves and I no longer see where they go–like sputtering candlelight, like little embers that burn briefly and brightly for several drawn moments before all their light goes out.

Compare that to a this scene, the tense period juuuuuuuuuuust before the spirit exacts her revenge:

Neither the girl nor the Smiling Man crushkillcrushkillKILLKILL sees the small blanket of black that rises around his form, though in the small trickle of light it seems larger somehow, like it gains its strength from places such as these. [...]

Just as suddenly, the light above their heads breaks off, shattering. Over the sound of the girl’s wailing the Smiling Man is cursing. [...] Something else blocks his vision. The Smiling Man finds himself looking at a woman on the ceiling. The glow of candlelight catches only her face, her long hair hanging down, and her bright black eyes. She is only inches away, and she gurgles.

It is the Smiling Man’s turn to scream, and the brief light is suddenly extinguished.

Gah. Just rereading that, my stomach is in knots.

There are wonderful ideas here, too. Like the victims literally hanging to a murderers back, even though the murderers, “do not feel burdened by the weight of those they kill.” And Tarquin, the fifteen year old boy–The Tattooed Boy–that the narrator finds so fascinating . . . Chupeco ties the act of growing up with the loss of innocence, which in turn plays a critical part in the last portion of the novel and the practical use of his tattoos. Oh, and did I mention there are dolls. Oh shit, the dolls . . .

My only concern is how quickly Tarquin’s personality changes. He goes from being a typical moody, misanthropic teenager to being a goofy talker of a boy very quickly, and I never understood why or what the catalyst was. All things considered, it’s relatively minor and didn’t pull me out of the story too, too much.

So yeah, I’m a huge, big fan of The Girl from the Well, and I kind of want to kiss the acquisition editor at Sourcebooks who bought this novel and brought it to us. Go read this book immediately and come back to discuss. Can’t wait to see what Rin Chupeco does next!

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Nicole Wolverton
Nicole Wolverton is the author of The Trajectory of Dreams, a dark psychological thriller (Bitingduck Press, March 2013). Her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and Five Quarterly, among others. She lives in the Philadelphia area.
Nicole Wolverton

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